Lock and key by Sarah Dessen

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Penguin, 2009. ISBN 9780141324944.
(Ages 14+) Recommended. The test for me for a really good story is when I reach the end of a book and feel bitterly disappointed that I'm not continuing to follow the paths of the characters that I have gotten to know so well, and when I know that I will have to reread the book because I loved it so much. Lock and key is one such book. Ruby has been abandoned by her alcoholic mother and manages to survive for several months on her own. When her landlords discover that she is living in squalor by herself, Social Security is brought in and she is sent to live with her older sister Cora and brother-in-law Jamie in their luxurious house. Ruby is an independent girl who has built up many defences to ensure that she isn't disappointed by abandonment, and it's tough for her to break down these barriers, make friends and perhaps allow love into her life.
Sarah Dessen is an author who has a wonderful understanding of teenage girls, relationships, family and friendship. She manages to sympathetically delve into the life of Ruby, almost 18, who is determined that she will make it on her own, when she can legally leave her sister's house. I was engrossed as I followed Ruby's path, gradually letting some people into her life and making tentative friendships and the beginning of a romance with Nate, the amiable boy whose philosophy about adversity in life is that Uswim.
Ruby has a school project to complete about what it is to be a family and Dessen explores how diverse the meaning of family can be and how it means different things to different people and how it is always evolving. By the end of the book, Ruby has come to understand the complexity of the family, from a large supportive one like that her brother-in-law has, to the single parent one brought on by divorce and abandonment. She has begun to care about people and to tentatively trust some friends, and the reader has grown with her on the way.
The themes of family, domestic abuse, friendship and trust are beautifully handled. Dessen is an author whose books I will actively seek for their compelling writing and deft touch with relationships.
Pat Pledger